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The Livorno Lions boys volleyball team takes a timeout Thursday to go over plays with coach James Bartell during preliminary round of the Mediterranean boys tournament, held this week at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy.
The Livorno Lions boys volleyball team takes a timeout Thursday to go over plays with coach James Bartell during preliminary round of the Mediterranean boys tournament, held this week at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
The Livorno Lions boys volleyball team takes a timeout Thursday to go over plays with coach James Bartell during preliminary round of the Mediterranean boys tournament, held this week at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy.
The Livorno Lions boys volleyball team takes a timeout Thursday to go over plays with coach James Bartell during preliminary round of the Mediterranean boys tournament, held this week at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
Teammates from the Livorno Lions, at left, go up for a block against a player from Ankara High School on Thursday.
Teammates from the Livorno Lions, at left, go up for a block against a player from Ankara High School on Thursday. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
James Bartell, Livorno's boys volleyball coach, says this year's team "has heart," and is one of the best teams he has coached in his 16 years at the U.S. military high school in Italy.
James Bartell, Livorno's boys volleyball coach, says this year's team "has heart," and is one of the best teams he has coached in his 16 years at the U.S. military high school in Italy. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

NAPLES, Italy — As if the pressure of competing for your high school’s honor in the Mediterranean boys volleyball tournament wasn’t enough, the Livorno Lions are doing it as the last team from that high school.

“We’re playing with heart,” said senior and co-captain Colter Fernandez, 17, who learned earlier in the school year that low enrollments are prompting officials to close the place where he spent all four years of high school.

“We’re staying positive, we don’t give up. We got Crunk juice,” boasted fellow co-captain Juan Gonzales, 15, either referring to the brand named energy drink, or the 2004 album by hip-hop artists Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz.

Either way — they’re pumped up.

“They’re counting on us to win,” Juan said of his schoolmates. “And we’ve been sucking in the past.”

After a two-year lull, prompted by a lack of players, the school’s boys volleyball program picked up again last year. But their record was 0-10.

What a difference a year makes.

Thursday, the Livorno Lions team was in Naples, Italy, competing against other teams for the coveted title of the best in the Med. The finals are this weekend.

“We’re going to make it a good last year,” said 16-year-old Eric Soto.

Officials from the Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe decided to close Livorno High School, its smallest, when the current school year ends. This year, the school has a student body of 26.

In American-Italian volleyball player Allessio Buccellato’s reading lab, for example, there is just one other student.

Next school year, high school-age students will have the option of attending London Central if they wish to remain in the DODDS system, attending an international school in Florence, Italy, homeschooling, or taking a correspondence course. The elementary school will remain open.

In his 16 years as a coach at Livorno High School, James Bartlett said he hasn’t had a team quite this good. That’s because this year’s team “has heart.”

“They get along well. They might not be the greatest of friends off the court, but when you get them on the court, as a team, they’re very cohesive,” he said, choking back tears.

“This is probably as nice and good as a team I’ve had, and it’s sort of sad,” said Bartlett, who also serves as the school’s athletic director and has coached basketball, track and field and cross country. “I’m not a jump-down-their-throat kind of coach. I like teaching them skills, but while I did tell them at the beginning of the year that I love to win, I also told them we’re here to have fun.

“This is a game, and as long as we’re having fun, there’s a good chance we’re going to win. When it stops being fun, that’s when we’ll lose.”

On Thursday, the team lost matches to Ankara and Aviano; in order to stay alive in the tournament, it must win both its games Friday against Sigonella and the American Overseas School in Rome.

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